Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What is Your Game About?

For such a derivative medium, the gaming world has a lot of distinctive brands and properites.  Glancing over a lot of newer releases and big-name franchises, it's very easy to identify the unique qualities of all of them.  Alan Wake is about a writer dealing with his own inner demons made real.  Borderlands is about fighting monsters on an alien world while feeding the random loot demon.  Call of Duty is about intense action and high-grade military gun porn.  Fable is about exploring a large, reactive world and watching your hero grow and develop.  SSX is about impossibly steep mountains and even more impossible snowboard tricks.

Almost every single gaming franchise of any note can be easily described in a few short words, as far as brand and aesthetic go, and this is how games are marketed, why players become attached to them, and what generally separates successes from failures - if your game isn't memorable and distinct, it doesn't matter how good it is mechanically.  Competition is just too steep to not stand out, and there are so many games crowding the marketplace that being able to communicate to players exactly what a game's strengths are in a manner of seconds is often more important than all the work put into the game itself.

However, while questions about image, aesthetic and so on are integral to the success of a game, we rarely take the time to address what a game is about mechanically and structurally.  Distinctiveness is something we express in terms of looks, not in terms of the fundamentals that actually drive the gameplay experience in the first place.  Even among experienced and successful developers, much of this comes down to "feel" rather than any particular critical understanding.  In this article I'd like to take the time to draw attention to a few aspects of games that we don't always think about, but have a bigger say in defining our experiences than all the branding in the world.

Success and Failure States

One rule that has yet to be seriously rewritten in the mainstream games industry, beyond more than a few experiments, is what the terms of success and failure are.  Almost any single game can be summed up as: overcome obstacles for rewards.  If we fail, we try again, and if we succeed, we typically move on to the next challenge or complete the game.  This definiton of what constitutes a game is so fundamental to our understanding of the medium that key ideas tied into success and failure - game over, respawning, cinematics, inventory, character progression - are all expected in just about every game; despite this, we rarely stop to think about why they are there, or why they take the forms they do.  It's possible to create great games without even knowing why a multiplayer mode should revolve around attaining the greatest number of frags, or why an RPG should feature disposable loot - we just take these as givens.  More generally, our reliance on success and failure states is so great that even when we talk about games that deviate from the norms, we tend to think of them as non-games.

Unfortunately, this mentality can be backed up by players as much as by developers, and experiments with failure states are often met with anger or confusion.  Ubisoft's Prince of Persia (2008) attempted to reinvent both the aesthetic and gameplay of the series by effectively removing the consequence from death - though players would always have to overcome specific challenges to proceed, failing would not result in lost progress.  This was enough to set off a torrent of complaints from many gamers, especially the more traditional fans of the series - even though Prince of Persia, since its revival with The Sands of Time years before, had featured this exact same consequence-free gameplay, albeit with a limit imposed.  Tale of Tales' The Path also experimented rather boldly with the idea of failure and success states by providing different endings for different play-styles, without sticking to obvious good and bad outcomes - the result was a game that was praised for its innovation, but many players simply did not "get."

Because it was familiar, Ubisoft's Prince of Persia series went back to convention with The Forgotten Sands regardless of whether it improved gameplay.
Interestingly, in the multiplayer space, failure and success states play by very different rules, and deviation from the norm is common.  Minecraft is an obvious example with no clear success or failure (or even strict rules save for the laws of physics and crafting system that govern the game world), but this is appealing primarily because players enjoy the game more as a social experience than as a traditional game.  However, Minecraft is not as different at second glance as it initially appears - MMO games have shown for years that players are often less interested in direct competition and winning as they are with simply occupying a space with others.  Different players get different things out of different games, of course, but Minecraft scratches a very particular itch without feeling the need to tie itself to more traditional structure.  In this sense it is not so much innovative for what it does so much as what it doesn't do - fetter itself with unnecessary baggage.  In this light, its success is easier to comprehend.

Considering exactly how a game will be "won" or "lost", or whether such terms will have any meaning at all, is something fundamental to design that we almost never think to question.  Even death is so much a synonym that violence can often work its way into games where it may be wholly inappropriate, such as titles aimed at children.  Many game concepts are never even considered because of this - how many titles do we see that seriously build themselves around social interaction, exploration for exploration's sake, or freeform building and creation?  If designers (and publishers) want to distinguish their games, looking to and toying with the very basics of what constitutes "game over" opens many doors.

Input & Interface

There are hundreds of different factors about a game that can be fine-tuned when it comes to input, controls and game feel - from more general things like button layout and user interface, to camera distance and field of view, to smaller details like the threshold of action required to move a character at different speeds, or consistency of certain control functions (should B always cancel, or does the Back button make more sense sometimes?).

It may seem obvious, but creating games that work with the strengths of their interfaces can mean fighting downhill rather than uphill.
Understanding how these methods of input affect gameplay is crucial to actually building it in the first place, especially in the broad strokes of interface.  Though I don't go into each and every one, below are some of the most common forms we see, as well as their implications on gameplay:
  1.  First-person perspective.  Conventions for controls tend to vary based on standards set by the biggest shooter (for a long time inverted controls were standard due to the legacy of flight simulators), but these games almost always rely upon striking some sort of balance between positioning and facing - in the case of a shooter, it might be aiming a gun while dodging bullets, while in a role-playing game, interacting with objects may take on the same function.  Despite the cosmetic differences, the method of action is effectively identical.  Sometimes, the limited field of view can be used to interesting effect, as well.
  2. Third-person perspective (3D/over the shoulder).  Generally third-person games place more emphasis on navigating an environment.  Due to the fact that the player's spatial and situational awareness are no longer hampered by what is immediately visible by the avatar, instead the challenge relies less in identifying and pointing at targets, and more on piloting the avatar - complex dodges, rolls, jumps and so on are almost always impossible to pull off effectively in first-person games, but work just fine when the player can see how their avatar moves.
  3. Side-scroller.  Whereas third-person games usually rely on dodging obstacles through positioning, side-scrollers tend to be much more about mastery of controls and understanding whole game worlds.  The limited (usually 2D) perspective means that challenge is not about navigating on a micro-level (do I dodge forward or forward-left?), but rather about performing complex sequences of input that form larger chains of action (jump from platform X to Y, duck, shoot, duck, jump down, etc. - see Contra for a classic example).  In some cases, the focus also turns to navigation of an overworld environment and sub-levels, especially common in the Metroid and Zelda games.
  4. Isometric/point and click.  These types of games are only common on devices with pointer-style controls or touchscreens, and with good reason - in almost all cases the challenge comes down to speed and precision of the pointer device, coordination of complex input combinations (as in the case of strategy games like StarCraft) or managing large tasks that would be impossible in any other interface (such as ordering groups of soldiers around a map) - whereas most games put the emphasis on the player's ability to manipulate an avatar held by certain constraints, isometric games usually emphasize the player's own dexterity.  Necessarily, games played from this perspective are generally larger-scale, although of course there are exceptions.
Granted, there are always exceptions, and there is also a lot of overlap - some strategy games are not so different from side-scrollers, for instance, in that much of the difficulty comes in managing difficult chains of input (correct timing, sequence, etc.), and a racing game is not unlike a 3D platform game in that the goal is to avoid obstacles (cars or, say, rolling boulders) while piloting an avatar.  However, paying particular attention to the effect perspective and input mechanism have on potential for gameplay can help emphasize strengths while minimizing weaknesses in design.  Games like Mirror's Edge or Fallout: New Vegas demonstrate that unless your level design and gameplay accommodate input and perspective, you're going to run into problems (overly difficult navigation, in their case), while Super Metroid is successful precisely because it so expertly builds itself around the inherent strengths of its interface, and Portal because its portals literally open new perspectives for the player.

Gameplay Systems & Structure
There are generally two approaches to game design on a broad level - go for a very tight, well-balanced, focused mechanic and stick to it, making sure to master the essentials and create a pure gameplay experience, or try to manage the interactions between multiple systems (mini-games in themselves) and make sure that the balance between all of these is able to make up for the general deficiency in the individual mechanics.  One isn't necessarily better than the other, although smaller games may be suited to the former approach to avoid feature creep and bloat; defining and managing the systems that make up a game is crucial to understanding how or why something works, or doesn't.

Both the games on older consoles (Atari, NES/SNES, Master System/Genesis, etc.) and the newer mobile games (iPhone/Android) tend to fall into the former category, with games whose designs effectively polish a single idea to a mirror finish, adding only what's needed to keep the experience fresh for its intended duration.  Cut the Rope might be absurdly simple mechanically, for instance, but the challenges it presents and variable scoring system repurpose those mechanics in new contexts to keep things interesting.  Meanwhile, Sonic the Hedgehog puts heavy focus on replayability and speed-running, featuring levels that reward fast completion and facilitate it for players who are skilled enough.  Neither of these games are especially "deep", but they are able to leave lasting impressions precisely because their core mechanics are so polished.

Castlevania 2 may be one of the best examples of a game trying to strap on too many mechanics to a relatively simple design, and buckling under its own weight.
Conversely, many games opt for sheer size and the interaction of many mechanics to produce their fun.  Although applicable to the largest games, like The Elder Scrolls series, many smaller-scale games also rely upon this interplay.  Consider how Call of Duty requires players manage health, ammo capacity, risk/reward in terms of movement and exposure, reload time, and even killstreak reward use in order to force constant movement, repositioning, and ensures things are always tense.  We might think of it as a "mindless shooter" at times, but the truth of the matter is there is a lot going on that we never even stop to think about.  Some of the most successful mechanics in Call of Duty, such as the aforementioned killstreak rewards, work so well precisely because they tie into the continual risk/reward systems at play, whether that's in accumulating them (through either consistent or risky play), or in using them (pick the wrong time and the reward is wasted).

Most games are going to sit somewhere in the middle.  The reality of game creation is that while on paper it's easy to specify and articulate many aspects of gameplay, actually turning it into something fun requires months of tweaking, and with modern production values being what they are, developers rarely have the resources to perfect their mechanics.  The interplay between mechanics is very often enough to make up the difference, however, so much so that players are willing to forgive a lot of balance problems or shallow mechanics if the interactions are interesting and addictive enough.  A bloated or anemic game will give players pause far more than one with balance issues or endgame pacing concerns.

Closing Thoughts

We too easily attribute the success of games to the aesthetics that surround them - and this is often very tempting to do, because as fans of games we tend to see what fans see, and even experienced designers can sometimes fixate on the surface elements.  Granted, game design is as much about creating interesting mechanics and understanding the impact of control scheme on challenge construction, as it is about being able to unite narrative and art style, or create the perfect rise in tension through a game level by using subtle audio cues, but just as knowledge of music theory is important to composition, being able to understand exactly how and why a particular element of a game influences how it plays can allow for the crafting of more compelling experiences.

More broadly, I also hope that, as gamers and game creators develop critically and intellectually, and the vocabulary for understanding games grows, the answers we give to the question "what is your game about?" will change.  This might sound a bit game design 101, but even so it can be easy to get caught up in the minutia and miss out on the fundamentals driving a game.  Ideas are all well and good, but in focusing too much on genre and on image, we restrict the articulation and precision of our expression, as well as dampen our understanding of what constitutes a game in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Eric, this is Errick :) I've read some of your blogs on here and on Gamasutra and they are always a great read that's really insightful. I'm also an aspiring game designer but am having a hard time getting started. I'm looking at getting a game design degree but was hoping I could ask you a few questions about what you think since you've already graduated and been working in game design. If yes would you send me an email @ errick.falcon@gmail.com